More runners and spectators than ever before took part Wednesday in the Merced County Law Enforcement Torch Run, according to organizers.
The fourth annual event raises funds for the Special Olympics of Northern California, which plans its summer games later this month.
Officers from UC Merced, Merced Police Department, Merced County Sheriff’s Department, Merced County Probation Department, Livingston Police Department and the California Highway Patrol took turns carrying the torch with two athletes.
Mark Heffner, 33, of Merced smiled as he carried the torch during the last leg of the run, which started at UC Merced and stopped in downtown Merced and Atwater before ending in Livingston.
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Heffner has competed for almost 20 years in basketball, track, bowling and other competitions in the games.
He is also not shy about his gold medal in golf from the 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games held in Shanghai, China. “I’m Mark. I’m world champ,” he said while introducing himself at a recent fundraiser.
His father, Wayne, said Heffner is willing to try anything, and does well in most athletic events. The Special Olympics also give him the chance to learn some life skills.
“He gets a chance to build his social skills, and he just loves sports,” the 74-year-old said. “That gives him confidence.”
The games have also given Heffner and his family the chance to travel and participate in gatherings others may never get the chance to see. “That just makes me so proud, considering his difficulties,” the elder Heffner said.
Sgt. Jeff Godfrey, a UC Merced officer and the local organizer of the run, said about 25 runners accompanied the torch at any given time along the route. He said the popularity of the event has grown, calling it “an honor” to be able to run with the athletes.
“I think it’s beneficial that all of our colleagues in law enforcement are getting into it,” he said.
The funds raised by local and state efforts pay for the games, which do not charge the athletes to participate.
The torch run ends June 26 at UC Davis before the athletics kick off that weekend.
A handful of officers from the UC Merced Department of Public Safety, and the Merced and Livingston police department last week placed items in shopping bags for grocery shoppers and offered to help them to their cars during the annual Bagging for Bucks fundraiser for the games.
Merced County’s fundraising effort for the Special Olympics of Northern California continues online at http://2015LETR.kintera.org/mercedcountyletr.